Educating tourism students to have a sustainable mindset: a study into how universities can develop students' capabilities to have more complex understandings of sustainability.

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Arcodia, Charles

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Ferreira, Jo-Anne

Hales, Robert

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An important outcome of a university business education is to shape individuals who are capable of working in and operating businesses that deliver economically profitable, socially responsible and ecologically viable services. In preparing future sustainable tourism workers, universities also need to design curricula that develop students’ skills in critical thinking and acting with a sense of ethics and empathy. Research evidence indicates, however, that students often graduate without these skills. A potential reason for this is the design of tourism curricula based on weaker conceptualisations of sustainability (e.g. triple bottom line) as opposed to stronger conceptualisations of sustainability (more holistic and inclusive approaches). Another possible reason could be that educators are not successfully cultivating students’ abilities to think in more complex ways about sustainability nor are they adequately acknowledging the ways in which their students make sense of a complex concept such as sustainability. To add to the complexity of the sustainability phenomenon, there is growing international pressure on the tourism industry by the United Nations (UN) to work towards achieving the 17 global sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030. Despite recognition that tourism can help contribute towards the SDGs, a UN report provides evidence that tourism policymakers are not actively and sufficiently engaging with the SDGs. The UN’s recognition of the tourism industry’s ability to advance the SDGS through economic growth (SDG 8) is further problematic, even if this is seen as sustainable economic growth. The term ‘sustainable development’ has long been contested as a weaker form of sustainability due to its progrowth and development emphasis. Given the current global overtourism crisis, it seems more important than ever that universities pay attention to how sustainable tourism is being interpreted and implemented. This is necessary if educators are to truly encourage stronger sustainability mindsets in future tourism workers and change makers. Therefore, the overarching aim of this thesis is to explore how conceptualisations of strong sustainability amongst university students can be strengthened. This study is the first to explore the usefulness of variation theory in strengthening conceptualisations of strong sustainability amongst university tourism students. It provides the tourism literature with evidence of: 1) the conceptualisation of sustainability currently being integrated into undergraduate tourism courses by universities internationally; 2) the benefits of phenomenography as a research approach for studying qualitative difference in understanding concepts such as sustainability and sustainable tourism; 3) the viability of using a learning study approach to develop ‘stronger’ understandings of sustainability; and 4) the potential of variation theory to explain how individuals acquire understandings of sustainability. The empirical research is presented in three studies to address three main research objectives. The first research objective was ‘to identify the conceptualisations of sustainability currently being used in university undergraduate sustainable tourism courses internationally’. The first study, in Chapter III, identifies whether ‘strong sustainability’, sustainability skills and the SDGs are currently underpinning 60 international sustainable tourism courses. Chapter IV ‘explores the different ways in which tourism students, academics and industry practitioners currently conceptualise sustainability’ by conducting phenomenographic interviews with 20 participants. A continuum of less to more complex understandings of sustainability was then developed to identify qualitatively different ways of understanding sustainability. The third research objective was ‘to investigate alternate teaching and learning approaches that might encourage stronger conceptualisations of sustainability amongst undergraduate tourism students’. Chapter V, discusses how the continuum explored in Chapter IV was used in an Australian university sustainable tourism course, underpinned by variation theory, to implement a learning study to enhance students’ understandings of sustainability and the conceptual complexity of the term sustainability. The findings revealed that internationally, sustainable tourism courses do not include ‘very strong’ conceptualisations of sustainability, and that sustainability pedagogies (such as systems and holistic thinking) are not widely used. Phenomenographic interviews with (predominantly Australian-based) lecturers, students and industry workers initially revealed four qualitatively different ways of understanding sustainability ranging from weak to very strong understandings of sustainability. Whilst many tourism lecturers seemed to show understandings of moderate to strong sustainability, very few showed very strong sustainability conceptualisations. This implies that some tourism courses may potentially be designed and underpinned by a weak to moderate articulation of sustainability. These interviews also revealed that industry owners tended to demonstrate a much stronger sustainability understanding than tourism lecturers. Most industry owners had a longer-term focus and key motives centred on giving back to society and a ‘pay-it-forward’ attitude towards the environment. Further findings in the learning study revealed that variation theory offers a valuable teaching and learning strategy to help develop more complex conceptualisations of ‘very strong’ sustainability within a university tourism course. Based on these findings, a number of implications for theory and practice are examined. These include recommendations regarding the design of sustainable tourism courses such as strengthening the sustainability conceptualisations underpinning them; better integration of the SDGs; and the development of critical and systems thinking skills. The three studies also provide examples for use in practice. For example, in Chapter III, a questioning strategy is provided. The phenomenographic continuum in Chapter IV provides a teaching and learning tool for educators to incorporate into sustainability courses to help students’ understandings of the phenomena. Chapter V provides insight into how this continuum can be incorporated into a learning study and provides practical ways of using variation theory. By implementing the continuum into teaching and learning activities, both educators and industry can develop deeper and stronger conceptualisations of sustainability for the tourism industry. Limitations of the study are discussed, and recommendations put forward for future research. In addition, ways in which educational institutions and governments can use the findings of the study to enhance teaching and learning, both in the classroom and industry workplaces, are discussed. Such enhancements will provide a foundation of ‘strong sustainability’ mindsets within our future tourism industry, which in turn will contribute to the 2030 SDGs being achieved.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Dept Tourism, Sport & Hot Mgmt

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Tourism students


Tourism curricula

Sustainable development goals (SDGs)

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